Talking down the HIV/AIDS stigma in sub-Saharan Africa

The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, commonly known as PEPFAR, recently announced a new accelerated strategy to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 13 African countries by 2020. The plan is to diagnose patients early so they can begin treatment immediately and thereby stem the virus’s spread.

There is a catch: The plan works best when people openly listen and speak to health care professionals about HIV/AIDS. But the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in some communities limits the kind of talk that empowers people to seek testing and treatment. So more organizations are trying to get people more willing to talk about HIV/AIDS.

“The consequences of not talking about HIV and AIDS are young people not being informed in order to stay safe,” says Hydeia Broadbent, an activist who has traveled to Africa with the U.S. Department of State to speak about living with HIV.

Spark conversations

Kebonye Mercy Motseosi is a doctor and Mandela Washington Fellow working on HIV/AIDS education and awareness in Botswana, one of PEPFAR’s 13 target countries.

As a medical student, Motseosi observed that people tend to avoid events about HIV/AIDS. This is due in part to the fact that sex is often a taboo topic. As a result, many parents don’t teach their children how to protect themselves against HIV, since they won’t even talk about sex.

Motseosi says this causes problems because people are growing up around the threat of HIV/AIDS, “but nobody tells you about this, nobody prepares you for something like that.”

Silhouette of person's face and hand (© AP Images)
The stigma against HIV/AIDS keeps victims of the disease in the dark, like this South African orphan whose mother died of AIDS. (© AP Images)

Motseosi founded Life Uncensored, a group that uses media and art to spark public discussions about contentious issues relating to HIV/AIDS. The organization hosts panel discussions at conferences and community events.

From LGBT lifestyles to prostitution, Life Uncensored prompts conversations on thorny topics that many people avoid because they can lead to confrontation. Moderators prepare audiences to share openly and also to listen to other views by saying “Offense is guaranteed, but not intended” at the start of each panel. The group also provides data to teach about the incidence of HIV/AIDS and suggest treatment options, to make sure people go home informed. Motseosi hopes these discussions help people feel comfortable talking about HIV/AIDS in their communities with the ultimate goal of limiting the virus’s spread.

“The best next step is to continue the conversation,” she says. “Because we are near epidemic control, but we still need to continue talking about it and make people aware that it’s still there.”